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What Volume of Sound Can Damage Your Hearing?

a brown-haired woman touching her ear

Besides aging, loud noises are the biggest threat to your hearing. Data from CDC studies suggest that around 10 million adults living in the US have some form of noise-induced hearing loss, making it a substantial public health issue. 

It turns out, though, that this isn't inevitable. Once you understand safe sound thresholds, you can protect your hearing long-term

What volume of sound damages your hearing? 

The volume of sound that damages your ears differs from person to person. However, experts agree that prolonged exposure to noises above 85 decibels could lead to lasting hearing loss. Furthermore, the louder the sound, the more likely it is to compromise your hearing. 

Evolution designed our ears to pick up sound waves – pressure waves that move at several hundred miles per hour through air. The machinery in our ears is extremely sensitive and delicate, enabling them to detect quiet noises. But this is a double-edged sword that also makes them more prone to damage. Thus, when the energy in sound waves becomes too great, it can harm the eardrum and the middle ear's delicate sound-sensing hairs. Prolonged exposure to loud noises progressively damages these structures, leading to reductions in hearing quality. 

How long it takes for this damage to happen depends on the intensity of the sound. For 85-decibel sounds, it might take weeks or months of exposure for problems to arise. By contrast, it might only take a few seconds for damage to occur, listening to sounds over 130 decibels. 

The distance you are from the sound can also make a substantial difference. Speakers at a rock concert, for instance, might be blasting out music at 130 decibels at the source. But if you are a hundred yards away, the energy reaching your ears will be much less intense and any damage will not be as severe. Likewise, if you stand right next to a plane as it takes off, you're much more likely to harm your hearing than, say, somebody reading a magazine in the airport lounge. 

How sound damages your ears

Have you ever wondered how sound damages your ears? Here's a quick rundown: 

  • Incoming sound waves enter the ear and travel down the ear canal to the eardrum. 
  • The eardrum vibrates violently and transmits the signal to three small bones in the inner ear. 
  • These bones then translate air-based sound waves into fluid-based waves by hammering on a structure called the cochlear – a snail-shaped organ in the ear filled with fluid. 
  • As the waves ripple through the cochlear, they interact with hair cells that sit on top of a membrane the undergirds the entire organ. 
  • When these hairs move in response to sound, they create pore-like openings that lead to chemical reactions that send signals to the brain for processing. 

The weak link in this chain is the hair-like structures on the interior of the cochlear. Excessive sound wave energy damages them and, usually, they don't grow back. 

How to prevent noise-induced hearing loss

Fortunately, the average person can avoid noise-induced hearing loss, so long as they understand its causes and how to prevent it.  

Wear hearing protection

The best way to protect your ears is to wear hearing protection. Earbuds and earmuffs are both excellent at reducing the total sound energy reaching the cochlear. Most hearing protection offers between 20 and 30 decibels of noise reduction. That means you can usually safely expose yourself to sounds between 105 and 115 decibels for protracted periods. 

Please note, though, that noises will be louder than this in some situations, meaning that hearing protection won't fully protect you: 

  • Rock concerts can go up to 130 decibels
  • Sirens from emergency vehicles go as high as 129 decibels
  • Fireworks displays can produce sounds between 140 and 160 decibels

Avoid listening to music at high volumes through headphones

Many manufacturers include built-in hearing protection on headphones to prevent their products from damaging your ears. However, you can often bypass these restrictions and listen to music at much higher volumes. 

Audiologists recommend against doing this. Just like other loud noises, music can permanently damage the ears. What's more, because music is pleasant, you're often willing to listen to it at higher volumes for much longer. 

Avoid hazardous noise environments

Lastly, you can reduce the chance of noise-induced hearing loss by avoiding hazardous noise environments. Steering well clear of building works or nightclubs, for instance, can help. 

Would you like to learn more about the factors that can damage your hearing? If so, please contact us today at East Bay Audiologists, APC, 925-718-5592 to speak with an expert.